Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is a melancholy masterpiece.
Every so often, a science fiction novel comes around that transcends the genre and gives lie to the assertion that non-mainstream fiction is somehow literarily inferior. When this happens, the field gains a bit of respectability and, hopefully, attracts more great authors to its fold.
Miller’s three-part novel was originally published as three separate stories in Fantasy and Science Fiction, and I am given to understand that they have been much improved in book form. In brief summary, Canticle tells the story of seventeen centuries of history after an atomic apocalypse nearly destroys humanity. The protagonists are monks associated with an abbey of the Catholic Church which, as it did in the Dark Ages after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, keeps the flame of knowledge kindled even as the world sinks to barbarism around it.
In the first part, Fiat Homo, a 26th century novitiate discovers a fallout shelter that bears relics of the long-departed, venerable Leibowitz, in whose honor the novitiate’s abbey has been founded. It is more of a mood piece than anything else, and if not for the setting, could have been a tale of any 7th century monastery.
Fiat Lux is a 32nd century story tale that takes place during a Renaissance. As abbey monks re-invent the arc light, a natural philosopher from a would-be continental empire visits the compound to conduct research. His coming presages an invasion by the empire’s ruler as prelude to a bid for American conquest. This was my favorite section of the book, capturing that flush of excitement that accompanies a great scientific leap forward. It also has, I think, the best-drawn characters.
Part 3, Fiat Voluntas Tua, takes place in the 37th century. Humanity has surpassed the achievements of the 20th century, with robot highways and interstellar colonies. Yet the old rivalries between East and West remain, and the Superpowers are just a hair-trigger away from a second Diluvium Ignis. The Church stands ready to launch an mission (of the religious variety) to the stars to preserve itself through the impending catastrophe. I enjoyed this part the least, though it is by no means unworthy.
Canticle moves at a majestic, unhurried pace, and yet also a page-turner--no mean feat. Throughout is this feeling of inexorability, that humanity is doomed to a certain cycle of events so long as we remain human. The book is the embodiment of Santayana's now-famous aphorism, "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it." My wife found the premise depressing, but I saw (and I think Miller intended us to see) that sliver of hope in the Church's final peregrine mission. Canticle's Church is the one element of humanity whose purpose was to preserve humanity's memories, after all.
Miller makes liberal use of Latin, which is translated directly, obliquely, and sometimes not at all. For those of us who took college Latin, it poses no great difficulty, but the new breed of uncultured students may find it challenging. It cannot be denied that it lends a distinct and authentic flavor to the proceedings.
Interestingly, one character (aside from the erstwhile Leibowitz) appears in all three parts of the book: Lazarus, the Wandering Jew. Wry and wistful, he lends an earthy element to otherwise rather majestic proceedings as he carries the virtual entirety of the mantle of Judaism as he waits for Him to return to Earth. I liked Lazarus, but I may be a little biased on the matter.
In sum, Canticle is a superb piece of fiction: spiritual, daring, by turns tense, prosaic, horrifying, and humorous. I'll be very surprised if it isn't nominated for next year's Hugo.
(By the way, this article marks a full year since I began this column! Many thanks to those of you who have stuck with me. You keep me writing.)
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